Christian Marclay’s Acoustic-Visual Worlds
He was awarded the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale for his 24-hour film “The Clock.” This work made Christian Marclay world famous. For decades, he has developed a complex oeuvre, combining music, performance, film, and fine art in a unique way. In 2011, the Deutsche Bank Collection acquired his 150-part "Graffiti Composition," a collective work created by Berlin residents. Marc Glöde presents the Swiss-American artist.
||Wristwatches, radio alarm clocks, pocket watches, station clocks. People ask what time it is or talk about time. They make appointments, dates, or simply wait for periods of time. For hundreds of Hollywood stars, supporting actors and extras, only one thing matters: time. For The Clock, Christian Marclay received the Golden Lion at the 54th Venice Biennale. It was his greatest triumph to date, thrilling critics and audiences alike. The 24-hour-long works consists of thousands of film snippets in which clocks and watches can be see. The watches and clocks in the film run synchronously with real time. For example, if someone enters the cinema at 3:32 pm, they see a scene in which the time is exactly 3:32.
Marclay’s film itself is a functional clock which relentlessly runs all kinds of epochs, genres, costumes, stories and feelings past us, illustrating how ephemeral everything is. Marclay worked with assistants on the project for over two years, sifting through decades of archive material. His montage of musicals, westerns, dramas, romances, thrillers and comedies is not a disjointed collage, but flows. Images, dialogues, soundtracks, as well as the ticking and humming of clocks are integrated almost seamlessly, joining into a gesamtkunstwerk – a visual-acoustic essay about film, time and human existence.
The importance of The Clock for Marclay’s career is reflected by the fact the U.S. magazine Newsweek counted him among the ten most important contemporary artists – an artist who previously was virtually unknown outside of the art and music worlds. He is not only a visual artist, but also a sound artist. It was his understanding of sound which enabled him to create a work such as The Clock. For more than 30 years, Christian Marclay has occupied himself with sound. The spectrum of his works ranges from creation to reception of sound, from the development of its sensory peculiarities to resonances and correspondences with other fields of perception such as the visual and the haptic. Even back when he studied art in the 1970s at Cooper Union in New York, he was interested in how other visual artists – including Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci and Dan Graham – engaged with music. For Marclay, their works not only bridged the gap between visual art and pop culture, but also opened up completely new paths for an artistic investigation of sound. At the same time, he was interested in the innovative music styles emerging in clubs such as punk and hip hop, as well as the experimental compositions of musicians such as David Moss. His own approaches would develop in this field of tension. He has worked with musicians and bands such as John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Arto Lindsay, DJ Spooky, and Sonic Youth.
Initially, Marclay’s art fluctuated between performances and installations, interweaving film, slide shows and music. His work was in the tradition of the legendary Vortex Concerts that Jordan Belson and Henry Jacobs gave in the late 1950s. Belson was an artist and filmmaker whose filmic works were inspired by non-representational painting. In 1957, he began an extremely fruitful collaboration with the sound artist Henry Jacobs. At the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, they gave a series of concerts accompanied by projections on the dome of the building. While Belson developed the kinetic light shows and visual effects, Jacobs played records from his collection – a then novel mixture of jazz rarities, African and Indian sounds, as well as other traditional non-Western music forms and sound experiments. The so-called Vortex Concerts were the forerunners of 1960s light shows such as Andy Warhol’s legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
While Belson and Jacobs usually limited themselves to playing individual recordings one after another, Marclay dealt much more actively with sound from the very outset. After finding cassette loops unsuitable for his purposes, he turned to the LP as his preferred medium. As in the beginnings of hip hop, Marclay radically mixed together different LPs, and the record player became his essential tool and most-used instrument. Marclay works in myriad ways. He produces his own LPs, such as Record without a Cover (1985), where the record is not stored in the cover but is left unprotected, accumulating more and more scratches over time. As a result, the spectrum of sound is different at each performance. In addition, he uses a wide range of curious LPs that he finds at stores, for which he normally does not pay more than a dollar. He does not always work with turntables, though. In some performances, Marclay does not use LPs as sound recordings, but scratches, bends or breaks them, turning them into sound objects. An important aspect of his works became apparent early on: they are not only meant to be acoustic investigations, but also visual ones.
The visual aspect is part of the performative aspect, which was and still is an essential part of Marclay’s work, With Berlin Mix, rather than sampling records he "conducted" a giant simultaneous multi-concert in 1993. The concert consisted of more than 180 musicians playing different kinds of music, resulting in a polyphonic, multicultural musical tableau. No matter whether he puts on a performance or exhibits records as an object, the visual is always linked with the acoustic. Two installations that directly demonstrate this are his works 2822 Records (PS1), 1987-2009 and Video Quartet (2002). In 2822 Records, the LPs are not used to play music but constitute the sound material themselves as a kind of parquet flooring. Museum visitors walk over the records, producing ambient sound. Apart from the acoustic aspect, the label design gives a visual dimension to the music. Under the viewers’ feet is a material "sound carpet" – an overview of the history of music and its aesthetic. The artist adopts a much different approach in his video installation Video Quartet. For this work, Marclay took musical film sequences as his point of departure, arranging them into an increasingly complex cacophony on four screens. Like the LPs, the film sequences serve as raw material that Marclay uses to put together musical pieces by means of sampling. His two best-known works, Telephone (1995) and The Clock (2010), take this idea further.
The work that illustrates the overlapping dimensions and the extent of Marclay’s reflections on tone, sound and composition most radically is his 150-part work Graffiti Composition, which the Deutsche Bank Collection New York purchased in 2011. On the occasion of a Berlin music festival, Marclay papered the city with 5,000 blank sheets of staff paper. The artist wrote: "The blank staff sheets invite people to add notes or any kind of graffiti to them. By writing on the sheets and reading the notes of other people, anyone can contribute to the citywide composition. While they go about their daily business, passers-by can become composers and listeners. Ephemerally and with no linear logic, this collective score can gradually develop into a polyphonic composition."
Thus the note sheets are a kind of invitation to the public to express ideas or attitudes and make comments. The traces left behind in the urban space range from graffiti to musical notation, from commentary to drawing. Marclay photographically documented the project and viewed it as a composition. From a selection of these contributions, a graphic edition was created which for the artist has the character of a score and which was subsequently realized musically. Here, too, Marclay intertwines the visual and acoustic dimensions, creating a work which steers our thinking away from the confines of traditional categories and redefines our understanding of sound.